NASA nails test on Voyager spacecraft, 13 billion miles away

NASA nails test on Voyager spacecraft, 13 billion miles away

IF you tried to start a vehicle after 40 years of it sitting in your garage, you might expect to run into a bit of trouble. But a set of thrusters aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft successfully fired up Wednesday after 37 years without use.

The satellite relies on "attitude control" thrusters to orient itself so it can communicate with Earth using the Deep Space Network.

But since the TCM thrusters had been dormant since 1980, the mission team needed to make sure they were still functioning. The switch could extend Voyager 1's life by two to three years.

The TCM thrusters are identical to the degrading attitude control thrusters, only they are located on the back side of the satellite. It took more than 19 hours - the one-way travel time for signals - for controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to get the good news. Chris Jones, Robert Shotwell, Carl Guernsey and Todd Barber analyzed options and predicted how the spacecraft would respond in different scenarios.

The twin Voyagers provided stunning close-up views of Jupiter and Saturn. The Voyager team had noticed diminishing returns on these thrusters since 2014, with the thrusters needing to fire up more often to give off the same amount of energy.

All of Voyager's thrusters were developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Ground controllers were seeking some solution and they made up their mind to evaluate a discrete rocket pack with four indistinguishable MR-103 "trajectory correction maneuver", or TCM, thrusters on the hind sight of the spacecraft that were utilized to coax Voyager 1 and sustain it on course during flybys prematurely in the commission.

The next day, on November 29, the engineers got to know that the TCM thrusters have performed perfectly. To make the change, Voyager has to turn on one heater per thruster, which requires power - a limited resource for the aging mission. The team was delighted when the results of their test were resoundingly positive. They operate in millisecond pulses - what NASA calls "puffs" - to keep Voyager aligned, with a minute thrust of just 85 grams (3 ounces) for high precision.

Its successor, the Voyager 2, should be there to pick up the slack when it does though.

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